Why do we keep Chickens Inside

I have been asked by several different people with very diverse backgrounds as to why we HOUSE chickens. People have a Disney moment every time they see a big fluffy chicken scratching around in a dusty yard, or looking ridiculous eating grass in a beautiful sunny field. These idyllic images should be the goal of “farming” everywhere, and folks wonder why on earth this doesn’t happen.
snow chickenHere, in Ontario, Canada, the most obvious reason is just making its reluctant disappearance. Winter and chickens are not the best of friends. Red Jungle Fowl, the predecessors of all laying hens, evolved as (spoiler alert: check out the name) JUNGLE fowl. Not especially tailored to cold weather. Although some breeds have been developed in the northern climates (like Rhode Island Reds, Couchons and Buff Orpingtons, to name a few), they lay far fewer eggs than the modern crosses we use now on commercial farms. Hens cannot handle cold weather well if they are selected for egg production.
Again, the pressures facing professional farmers is different than backyard chicken keepers. If you have 5 hens, and are used to getting 4 or 5 eggs per day, and get 3 or 4 per day in winter, you will say that they never miss a beat. This is a 20% decrease in production, and will destroy a commercial flock…..if you have 20,000 hens, you would be collecting 4,000 eggs less PER DAY. Either we would have egg shortages in the winter, (if we kept the same number of hens we have now), or a glut in the summer (if we had enough hens to supply enough eggs in the winter).

There are other reasons why chickens need shelter. They like it. Chickens are the ultimate prey animal….they have no weapons, they don’t have great camouflage, they are tasty and low in fat (important for predators who are watching their

Notice how many chickens are venturing out of the safety of the barn.

Notice how many chickens are venturing out of the safety of the barn.

waistlines). Chickens are NOT adventurous, brave or tough….they are, in a word, chicken. It keeps them alive. They have great vision, communicate predator presence very well, are flighty and nervous and very efficiently look for a reason to freak out. Having an enclosed shelter gives them a strong sense of security, especially if it protects them from predators from above. There have been research trials that marked hens with radio-collars that showed that hens given the choice to free-range outside of the barn actually choose not to. Over half the birds is some trials NEVER leave the security of the barn, and many of them spend a lot of time in the doorway….protected, but able to look out. Hens also have a serious aversion to wind, and really don’t like to go outside on windy days.
Hens seem exceptionally sensitive to flying threats, and really appreciate overhead protection. Some of the same studies have shown that range use increases if there is overhead shelter provided. Of course, putting a roof over the range makes it much less Disney-esque, and it is not difficult to imaging this roofed structure eventually gaining some type of walls to keep the rain and wind out….oops, now it’s a barn again.

Speaking of rain….it is another major drawback to range hens. Wet environments are incredible breeding grounds for bacteria, fungi and viruses that can devastate the health of a flock. Again….backyard flocks can work to keep

There is a reason why "mad as a wet hen" is a simile.....

There is a reason why “mad as a wet hen” is a simile…..

a range dry…shifting the area hens have access to, or shovel away the dirty, manure filled mud and replace it with dry, clean fill. Imagine trying to manage the range for a flock of 20,000 birds (I keep using 20,000 birds, since this is the average flock size in Ontario….it is a very small flock size compared to many places). Recommended range availability for laying hens is around 4 square meters per hen (right now, Canada has no explicit range size recommendations, but this number applies to other jurisdictions). For my hypothetical flock, we need 80,000 square meters of land to manage. This is 15 soccer fields to drain, clean, manage and keep attractive to the hens. It isn’t so much that it can’t be done, but it is very complicated and labour intensive.

Another thing that is controlled well indoors is light. Ever since pressure on laying hen farmers in the EU forced hens to be housed with outdoor access, mortality and welfare problems due to pecking and cannibalism has been one of the biggest obstacles facing the farmers and birds. In small groups (ie less than about 25), hens develop a solid “pecking order” that is mostly maintained by postures, feints and threats. In larger groups, dominance pressures more often result in physical attacks and then wounds. The other difficulty caused by daylight is the stimulation to keep birds laying throughout the fall and winter months. Chickens are encouraged to lay by increasing day length, and decreasing day length will push hens out of lay. Because our latitude causes maximum day lengths of over 15 and a half hours, it is necessary to keep the barn lights on for at least 16 hours per day. The further north you go, the longer the longest day is.

Finally, we keep hens indoors to protect them from predators. I’ve discussed problems of predation with many small farmers and backyard keepers. Predation is a very difficult problem….owls, hawks, and eagles from the sky; cats,

Raccoons can open almost any latch, burrow under fences and climb.

Raccoons can open almost any latch, burrow under fences and climb almost anything.

dogs, foxes, raccoons, weasels, snakes and even bears from the ground. Latches get undone, fences get burrowed under, and the assault on all the supports, wires and nettings means that there needs to be constant repair. Remember….on a professional farm of 20,000 hens, we are surrounding and covering 15 soccer fields of area. And once a predator finds access to such an easy, tasty meal, they will not leave it or forget it….in fact, in the case of birds, they often recruit friends to help with the harvest.

So, in summary, hens are indoors to decrease disease and discomfort from environmental stresses, reduce injuries from each other and external predators, improve the control of the environment in terms of light intensity and day length. There are other reasons, such as practicality of providing feed and water when the hens are outside, disease transmission from wild animals (Avian Influenza is a big one), and problems caused by foraging (impacted crops, nutrition dilution because of high levels of fiber intake, etc).

I hope this gives non-farmers an insight as to why range hens are a niche market, supplied by farmers who command a significant premium for their product and usually have small farms. Shifting the majority of the professional farms to this strategy of production would be very difficult, and would lead to a lot of problems for the hens as the industry adapted.

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23 responses to “Why do we keep Chickens Inside

  1. kathythechickenchick

    The impracticality of affording commercial laying hens a more Disney-like existence is one of the major reasons for the boom in backyard chicken-keeping in the past ten years. While it’s indisputable that backyard chickens will never put a dent in the commercial egg production industry, it will at least afford some of our pet food producers a more Disney-esque existence for more than a couple of laying seasons. That’s worth buying a ticket to, I’d say. ☺
    Thanks as always for your insights, Mike!

  2. Absolutely Kathy; the issue I run up against over and over is “I have chickens in my backyard….why can’t professional farmers raise them like THAT”? The difference between pet chickens and farms are huge, and I’m just hoping to point out the different pressures of each. Thanks for your comment!

    • kathythechickenchick

      Right on! Keep the info coming!

    • I reckon my chickens have not read your study. We raise 2,500 free range laying hens, so we are not backyard flock owners. Every morning when I open the coop doors the birds poor out running me over, wanting to be the first to check for goodies. Of course the hens in your photo do not want to come out, in that over grazed waste land you have for them there. We have hoop coops, portable laying houses 60 foot long, with solar panels on top for winter light. We move these houses every other week following the beef cattle, the girls love fresh cow patties. No overhead cover, wide open cow pastures here in Southern Indiana. Our winter laying does not drop but maybe 10 percent at the most. We control the lighting, adjust the feed rations, and once the temps start to drop below 50 we turn on the propane heat. In the coldest weather the girls do not venture far from the coop. We supplement their feed with soaked alfalfa, and skim milk. Combine that with a well balanced ration from the feed mill, feed kept in front of them free choice, along with minerals, salt, and oyster shell. Our average production is 306 eggs per hybrid sex link hen, per year, not quite as well as the highest producing white Leghorn, but quite well for a brown egg layer, and profitable, as our eggs sell wholesale for $1.85 per dozen, and we can not produce enough for our buyer.

  3. Thank you Vet Mike. Here in Florida, my backyard chickens become acclimated to the year round mild weather. During our unusually cold winter, my ‘girls’ were affected by the cold and wet. For the first time I had to cover my run on all sides to protect from icy rain and freezing weather. From the information in your post and other valuable resources, I was vigilant in checking for cold stress and injury. There were no loses and egg productions maintained throughout the ‘cold’ spell. Thankfully, we are in full spring weather mode now. I have happy yard chickens, and great pets. I keep chickens for relaxation, entertainment, and of course eggs!

    • Glad to hear yo and your flock got through the winter safely. Forgive me if I snicker a little at your “cold” winter….my family went to Disney over Christmas, and we spent a day at the waterpark….in bathing suits. 😉 Thanks for the comment, and for reading…..I’m really glad the blog has been of value to you.

      Mike

  4. Thank you Mike! I always enjoy reading and learning from your writings. My three hens make up the percent of very adventurous girls. I would love it if they would stay close to home. They can travel together over an acre in less than an hour. It’s not good when you live in a neighborhood. The guy at the pet store thought I was nuts when I asked for invisible fencing for chickens. The monitor they would have to wear is too big and heavy. Any suggestions? I have a 10′ x 10′ totally enclose coop but they run up and down the front like jail birds wanting to get out. I feel so guilty but can’t have them heading to the street or neighbor’s yards. We live on two acres.

    • Well…not sure this would be very attractive to you, but if you put some hawk silouhetes in the sky above the open areas, they would likely stick close to home….otherwise, most of my ideas involve fencing of some type. I’ve been trying to imagine how to set up fans to make a “wind break”, but cant figure out a practical way to do it….the fans would have to be like jet engines…..

  5. Thank you for presenting a positive view of larger commercial operations! Our three dozen prefer to be outside most of the time… You mentioned undernutrition with too much forage. We would like to expand our flock size, but commercially available organic feed is so expensive. Can you give me any resources for growing our own feed or forage, without expensive ag machinery? Thanks for a very informative blog!

    • Thanks for the comment Aggie,

      I’m not sure of your situation. If you have some land, I think the best thing you could do would be to look up what the experts do…..see how small farmers in third world countries prepare the soil and harvest their crops….they will know far more about it than I ever could. One suggestion, however…..making complete feed for laying hens is complicated and needs to be done right. Hens will become malnourished and very ill if the ration is not balanced. If you are going to make your own feed, please do your homework first so you don’t inadvertently cause problems.

  6. Great article! I keep a small flock near London, Ontario. This past winter was very hard on my birds so I had them processed. Great soup! I once had my flock get ticks from wild birds because I thought keeping them outside all day was best for them. I now know this is not true. They love it inside the coup.

  7. I think that you have made an excellent case here for there not to be farms with 20,000 plus chickens on them. Thanks Mike!

    The “nutrition dilution” comment I found to be thought provoking. Should animals that are capable of harvesting there own food not be allowed to because we can get them to be more efficient by feeding them a high performance ration while suppressing their natural instincts?

    • Thanks for the comment Jon, but you may not have thought it through. In North America, there are roughly as many laying hens as people. How will it be possible to have 4 million chickens within delivery distance to the Toronto area? If we have a maximum flock size of say 5000 birds, how will we collect the eggs from 800 farms to get the eggs to the stores, restaurants, bakeries, etc? And, you can’t make a living off 5000 hens, so farmers will need another job, either off the farm, or other animals on the farm. And 800 people will need to invest several hundred thousand dollars to do this part time job that will just pay the interest on the land it takes to grow them. And all the problems associated with “large flocks” will still be present. Maybe the maximum flock size should be 500….if you think it will work, have at it, and good luck.

      Mike

  8. Kelly Mulholland

    Thanks Mike, a very humane and informative article. Just because domesticated animals can endure inclement weather doesn’t mean they should be forced to. Our chickens live in our barn with de-iced water in the winter, and heat provided when we feel it is required. Our farm is not survival of the fittest, it’s our Disney-esque life. The girls are a big part of it.

  9. Thanks for the very informative article. My husband and I have been thinking about taking the plunge and getting back yard chickens. This information will really help us make a more informed decision.

  10. The problem is not so much that the chickens HAVE to walk around in the grass all day everyday, the problem is cages. If you have organic eggs, and it is certified by the American USDF as such, they need to have access to the outside. Unfortunately, this is one of the only ways to know if the eggs are cage-free, because the USDF doesn’t regulate that claim.

    • Hi Abacus ;

      I can’t say for sure in the US, but here in Canada, cage – free is a designation that is well monitored, and never falsified, as far as I know. These flocks are designated as “free-run”, and requires the birds to be loose in the barn, but can be fed regular feed.

      Mike

  11. Hi Dr. Mike, I am being harassed by the BCSPCA over my 6 pet free roam chickens/hens. They are on a witch hunt. Can you back me up on a couple of things ? they say that my chickens DO NOT use the great nipple watering system I have in place in my yard. This is because they visited my house twice and watched the chickens for 5 minutes and the chickens ran away from them and the waterer. So because they didn’t actually see them drink, they are charging me with not providing potable water for my pets.( I wish I was kidding but this is true!) They went up 14 stairs to my sundeck and found a turned over dish with some abandoned plant pots that had green rainwater in it and said the chickens have access to that so I am up on cruelty to animal allegations!

    Also my chickens are free range and have a great insulated house that is two level with two entries and a tree trunk inside to go up from one level to another etc. I was charged with animal cruelty because there was not a roost in there. My chickens were raised in there since babes and never got used to using a roost. They always slept in the hay. I installed a roost and two chickens would not enter the house at all. I could not get them in for the night and they were killed by nightime prowlers.. probably raccoons. Can you give me your opinion on this ? according to the SPCA”s own chicken care guide they say roosts are not a required things for free range chickens yet they are after me for this no matter what the cost.
    Thank you ! Teresa

    • Hi Teresa,
      I’m sorry you are having trouble with the SPCA. I don’t have any idea of your situation, or the conditions of your hens. I can tell you that chickens do drink successfully from appropriate nipple drinkers, and that a staggering majority of chickens kept professionally in Canada do drink from nipple drinkers. As for roosts, there is a “window of opportunity” for chicks to learn how to use perches, after which they will use them less often, and less successfully. This window is up to about 6 weeks of age. I have not seen anything that makes me think chickens who don’t use perches will find them aversive, only that they don’t use them well if not introduced to them before 6 weeks of age.

      I hope this helps, and I hope you come to some kind of resolution.

      Mike

      • Thank you Dr Mike ! and so to clarify.. do you know of any reason that a chicken not having a roost in their bedtime nesting area is detrimental to them ? they do have places to roost if they wanted… in the garden all day long… just not at night. Teresa

      • Hi Teresa;

        Roosting is actually a strong behavioural preference at night. Chickens roost occasionally during the day, but have a strong urge to roost at night. Somewhere around 20% of hens will be on a roost during the day, but 95-99% will roost at night…again, this is less if the hens are not acclimatized to roosting when young. The only detriment is that they cannot do what they prefer, and they can become frustrated.

        Mike

  12. PS.. I should clarify the waterer issue better. They said a chicken CANNOT USE IT and it is too hard to get water out of it for a chicken?!?! . So I am hoping you can confirm that indeed the chickens would use it even if you have not seen MY particular girls using it ! thanks ! Teresa

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